Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:04 am on 15th March 2023.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Twigg, and it is a pleasure to respond on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate my hon. Friend Liz Twist not just on securing the debate, but on her excellent speech, which set out all the issues and made some good asks of the Minister. As Members have said, she has been stalwart in raising awareness of the issue, and giving it a profile in Parliament, as she is doing today. The issue potentially impacts millions of people.
It is always a pleasure to hear from Jim Shannon. I did not know until today that the origin of his support for Leicester City was the 1969 FA cup final. As a lifelong Manchester City fan, that is one of my earliest memories, although it is a much happier memory for me than for him.
Colour vision deficiency or colour blindness affects many people in many different ways. One of the impacts is on their ability to participate and compete in, and watch, sport. Sport and physical activity are essential elements of a modern, healthy, thriving society. Participating in sport is important for physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. Watching sport helps connect communities, tackle loneliness and bring people together, as well as providing entertainment. Sport should be accessible and everyone should be able to enjoy it, no matter who they are. Unfortunately, for people who are colourblind, who face many challenges, this is not always the case.
The issue starts in school. Colour blindness is thought to affect around 450,000 schoolchildren in the UK. It can have real implications for their ability to learn and build confidence at school. Colour is often used as a tool for learning; for example, younger children use colouring-in sheets. Colour is used on maps and graphs. It is used to highlight information and make distinctions, particularly in school sport. We have heard the example of two teams wearing different coloured bibs in a school sports session. For a young person with difficulty differentiating between two colours, that can lead to their making mistakes or being slower to follow instructions, and it can knock their confidence and their ability to participate. Studies show that 80% of pupils get to year 7 without ever having had a colour vision test. I understand that school screening for colour blindness ended in 2009, and teachers are often not trained in how to identify and support colour-blind children.
It certainly seems that this lack of support and knowledge can impact negatively on participation in sport. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon said, research by Oxford Brookes University on the comparative levels of involvement of colour-blind and non-colour-blind players suggests that 25% of colour-blind players are potentially being lost to the system. That is obviously a problem, particularly as levels of physical activity among the population are not where they should be. Disabled people are one of the groups whose activity levels have declined most sharply since the pandemic, and fewer than half of all children do the recommended amount of sport and physical activity. We need to remove barriers whenever we can.
The issue continues into professional sport. For colour-blind people who make it as professional athletes, the barriers continue. It is welcome that colour blindness guidance has been created by the Football Association and UEFA for football and by World Rugby, but to date there is no official published guidance on the subject from the other major sports. Even in football and rugby, there is low awareness among clubs and coaches. If there is not a proper focus on the subject, lots of the issues that affect sports and players, such as team kit colours or the colour of the ball, can cause issues.
A lack of consideration for colour vision deficiency can mean that players struggle to identify their team mates. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon gave a couple of examples; I will point to another. Matt Holland, the former Northern Ireland international, used to play for Charlton Athletic. On his debut for Charlton, they were playing away in Plymouth. Charlton were playing in red; Plymouth were playing in green. After a few minutes, Matt had to run over to the side of the pitch and say to the assistant manager, “I don’t know what I’m doing here; I can’t differentiate the teams.” He said that the assistant manager looked at him as if to say, “What on earth have we signed here as our new player?” He went on to have a very successful career. He is now working as a pundit, and continues to face similar issues.
If it is bad for players, think about the difficulties for referees. It is difficult anyway to get people through the barriers to becoming referees in sport, so we need to try to tackle this extra barrier. This issue also affects sports fans. We have heard about the kit clashes, which are a common occurrence and can make a match difficult to follow. That is particularly galling if someone has spent lots of money on tickets, travel or pay-per-view. Issues can also be caused by ticketing portals, which sometimes use colour to distinguish different seats’ pricing and availability. As we have heard, this is also an issue when it comes to stadium safety and security. Because of the use of colours, colour-blind people can struggle to understand way-finding information, pick out emergency signage or understand things such as allergen advice in catering outlets. In the whole UK, only two stadiums have been fully audited for colour blindness accessibility.
Ambiguity around colour blindness and the Equality Act means that people who are colour blind often do not get their needs taken into account. Colour Blind Awareness, the organisation advocating for people with colour blindness, feels that the guidance notes to the Equality Act 2010 are problematic. The guidance notes state that people who are unable to distinguish between red and green should not be considered to have a disability, but people with colour vision deficiency do have a lifelong, debilitating medical condition that cannot be rectified, and many colour combinations cause challenges, not just red and green.
Under the 2010 Act, a person is considered to have a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial and long-term” effect on their ability to manage normal everyday activities, but colour blindness is not specifically cited in the Act. The Government Equalities Office does recognise that colour blindness can be a disability in some instances, so I ask the Government to look at this. Will the Minister and his colleagues consider the arguments in favour of reviewing the Equality Act guidance, to ensure that it supports all people with visual impairments or colour vision deficiency?
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon made a number of excellent suggestions for actions to be taken, and I endorse them, because they raise questions about what more the Government can do to ensure that schools and sporting bodies from the grassroots to the professional better take into account the needs of colour-blind players, staff and fans. We need to break down every barrier to people getting active and enjoying sport in all its forms, and that includes for people with colour blindness.